James vs. His Future Self (Canada, 2019) – GFF4

Back to the past

Director Jeremy Lalonde co-wrote this with his star Jonas Chernick and they’ve produced an agreeable SF-romcom. If the hybrid is unusual the narrative trajectory isn’t: blinkered boy eventually gets the ‘hot’ girl (Cleopatra Coleman). The science fiction element is James’ future self visits his young self, a nerdish scientist, to tell him it’s a mistake to develop time travel because he’ll lose ‘the girl’. The time travel paradox is interestingly dealt with as the future self, Jimmy (Daniel Stern channeling Christopher Lloyd though not as manic), will disappear if his advice is followed. Although formulae abound on chalkboards (they’re retro!) the science, understandably, is as fictional as the narrative and the film barely qualifies as SF.

Fortunately the romcom side has its pleasures, particular Coleman’s Courtney; Coleman is an Aussie and I look forward to seeing more of her. She manages to convey her female exasperation with male stupidity with deft changes of facial expression; the film is very much on her side. However, of course, James is the protagonist and while it’s unfair to chide Lalonde for focusing on the man, we do need more female orientated romcoms (as far as we need them at all).

Frances Conroy is excellent as the demented boss of the lab that James and Courtney work in. She is a truly unhinged creation that portrays the ‘mad scientist’ as both female and old; this is the sort of genre tweak that make can films interesting.

Unfortunately the dynamic of Jimmy seeking his own destruction is not investigated. This isn’t surprising as it would shift the narrative weight onto the older character and the focus, in true romcom fashion, is on the move toward coupledom. There are some good lines: Courtney says her putative partner dresses as if he were higher on the ‘spectrum’ than he actually is. The best scenes are between the two when James, urged on by Jimmy, tries to move his long-standing friendship with Courtney toward sex. She obviously fancies him but is savvy enough to know the switch in the dynamic from friendship to lust (she reckons the moment has long past) is fraught with difficulty. This isn’t investigated in detail, which is unfortunate but then it the number of laughs would have been reduced.

Overall the film’s worth seeing for its offbeat indie vibe; for some reason it reminded me of Killing Jessica Stein (US. 2001), which is indisputably female-orientated.

Bridesmaids (US, 2011)

Anarchic women

A female-themed The Hangover (US, 2009)? Well, maybe; but it’s better. Better because it focuses on women, and written by a woman? No, because it’s funnier. Daft questions but gender has stuck to discussion of this film. I’m not sure the gender question is particularly important regarding the film, but it does tell us a lot about Hollywood’s sexism that it’s so rare that female talent is given a chance to shine.

The film’s produced and directed by men, but Kristen Wiig (above), who stars and scripts, is the prime creative force. I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous comic set pieces that often veered into bad taste territory; the film has an anarchic streak that is immensely appealing. At the film’s heart, however, are the relationships between the women; just as the buddies are the focus of male-themed comedies.

So here’s a real challenge: make a comedy (or film for that matter) that treats both sexes equally!

It's pink but not putrid

I must admit that my first glimpse of the poster made me feel ill. However I wasn’t close enough to see the characters’ expressions. We do seem to living through a horrendously sexist era that the excess of pink was enough to put me off. It’s worth mentioning Rose Byrne, as the brittle control freak; she also appears in X-Men: First Class with an entirely different character – great acting.

Stranger Than Fiction (US, 2006)

Stranger than reality

This mildly amusing postmodern piece of frippery, with a stellar cast, the posits mildly anarchic Maggie Gyllenhaal character falling for the totally anodyne IRS exec (Will Ferrell). Why!?! Readers please point me to a movie where an interesting man falls for a boring woman.

That aside, this is barely a romcom as the laughs are muted (mostly concerning Dustin Hoffman’s lit prof.) and, as I said, the romance is er laughable (as in unbelieveable). However it scores a hit on the Bechdel test, so it isn’t all bad but I’ve decided to start counting how many protagonists are male as well.

Bechdel test: Pass (2/2)
Protagonist: M (0/1)

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (US, 2006)

Girls on top?

This could have been good; this could have been very good. Mocking male sexual anxiety is always good and letting the girls (women?) be on top; that’s good. Female super heroes: excellent. What’s not to like? It’s funny too: having a shark thrown at you by an ex-lover, brilliant!

Then it dawned on me that the film was actually about female hysteria. It’s meant to be hysterical that we laugh at a spurned woman’s tantrums. And sexual harassment at work? Well, that’s funny too!

Then we get a ‘bitch fight’: genius. That’s so funny. What could be funnier than girls fighting! It’s just not natural; they’re no good at it!

So this is a funny film; it’s also a misogynist film.

My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin geunyeo, S.Korea, 2001, and US, 2008)

Anarchy rules

Tamar Jeffers McDonald (Romantic Comedy, Wallflower, 2007) suggests that, in the screwball comedy, affection is expressed through aggression and that the protagonist is often female; an anarchic force that disrupts the stuffy male. Katharine Hepburn is the archetype – so brilliant is she that that word is correct – in the classic Bringing Up Baby (1938) and ‘The Girl’, of the original S.Korean My Sassy Girl, is in direct lineage to Hepburn’s character. In the US remake the character is named (Jordan Roark) and comes from a rich family; also like Hepburn’s character in Baby.

Not sweet enough?

I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the American version having enjoyed the original, however it is interesting to see how the narrative is adapted for the US audience. The main differences are in the Hollywood version:

  • at the beginning we are introduced to the boy’s family, an all American small town which I suppose is meant to explain his passivity in the face of the sassy girl
  • in S.Korean version, the girl throws up over a passenger in the commuter train; in the American version her outrageous behaviour – which brings them together – isn’t outrageous at all
  • he doesn’t take her back to a hotel; due to prudishness? In the S.Korean version it’s entirely chaste anyway
  • she’s rich; we learn nothing of the S.Korean girl’s background
  • her anarchic role more obvious in her comment about it’s sad that he wants a corporate future. Though that’s a bit rich from her, holding him in contempt for wanting a materially secure life, when she’s got daddy’s money
  • he has a mate that explains what’s going on (a generic trope)
  • there are fast motion bits in the American version, presumably to make it look more interesting
  • the ending adds syrup to schmaltz (‘Destiny is building a bridge to the one you love’)

I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw. Obviously in adapting a film for a different culture (market) there will be changes and, using the imdb’s audience ratings, the changes were not successful. The original is 8 whilst the remake scores a pathetic 5. It was badly done.

Pillow Talk (US, 1959)

Surprisingly funny

Why was this surprisingly funny, a ‘classic’ romcom from the 1950s? I assumed it would be anodyne given the mores of Hollywood at the time and that reactionary values would prevail. Having seem some, not this one I think, Day-Hudson vehicles as a child my memories of them were nothing special. However…

As a child I missed the double entendres (Tony Randall remarks he’s been looking forward to Rock Hudson getting his branch cut off) and so these were surprising.  Also Day’s character as an independent career woman was good to see – albeit in interior design (ie a ‘feminine’ occupation). However…

Reactionary values do prevail as the romance is consummated by Hudson’s character simply carrying her back to his; the caveman approach. En route she asks a copper to arrest him; the copper shrugs as if to say it’s entirely natural.

Genuinely funny through narrative contrivance and slapstick – Hudson getting into a minute sports car – and with stylish use of split screen across the cinemascope frame, this is worth seeing. On the verge of the ‘free love’ ’60s, this sex-free romcom was on the edge of extinction though – as Tamar Jeffers McDonald argues in her book on the genre – this traditional romcom is back where there is no doubt that the couple will be together for ever after and sex is definitely on the back burner.

It Happened One Night (US, 1935)

Pull the other one

This classic screwball comedy looks good despite the varnish of 75 years. Claudette Colbert may have dated a little but Gable’s only anachronism is his pipe smoking. He’s great at having his male belligerence undermined, as in the image above where his so-called expertise in hitchhiking is revealed to be bluster.

The film also includes one of the great lines in screwball comedy; when Peter (Gable) is asked several times if he ‘loves her’ he finally shouts ‘Ye-es, but don’t hold that against me, I can be screwy sometimes!’

Although it stands up well to a 21st century viewing, It Happened One Night is inevitably of its time. In her book on romcom Tamar Jeffers McDonald describes it as part of the ‘bus movie’ cycle in the Great Depression and no doubt audiences warmed to see the ‘celebs’ of their day – the rich – being shown to be morally vacuous in comparison with Gable’s nice guy Everyman. It’s difficult to imagine, as we emerge from the almost another Great Depression, that audiences now would warm to seeing ‘characters’ like Jordan being demeaned; that’s a sad commentary on our times.

Up in the Air (US, 2009)

What goes up...

It’s certainly going beyond stretching a point to say this movie is about unemployment but at least the reality for many people, after the bankers have blown the money, is alluded to in this film. And even if the ‘great unwashed’ are used, at the end, to verify the authenticity of family life, at least the film peeks into the horror of losing your job. However as it’s – in essence – a romantic comedy, we shouldn’t expect too much subversion; it’s certainly not screwball. That said, it does retain its indie status by refusing too gushing an ending, though many commentators have been critical of the last 15 minutes.

I don’t understand why Clooney’s up for an Oscar for this, excellent as he is particularly in the scene when his would-be lover describes him as a parenthesis. The role’s  written for his particular ooze of charm. We need to see more of Vera Farmiga, who describes herself as the same as Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) except ‘with a vagina’, and Anna Kendrick’s gauche knowitall is pitch perfect. Particularly affecting is the scene where the older couple offer advice to the disappointed in love Kendrick.

Reitman uses locations well, with some terrific overhead shots, and the editing of case packing is as incisive as Bingham’s efficiency. Great soundtrack too.

It’s Complicated (US, 2009)

Second time around the same guy

Maybe with the aging demographic Hollywood is starting to ‘get’ the fact that the cinema-going audience are not all 16-25 year olds and that sex does not stop when children are produced. Certainly kids make it harder but what about when they leave home…? Surely not! That’s disgusting! Well, that seemed to be the emotion of some young women in the cinema I saw this when the leads (tastefully) took off their clothes. However, I don’t think they’d picked the wrong film as their laughter was mostly with the film rather than at it. In addition the film has space to address how children feel when their mum and dad have divorced.

Old, female and sexy is not wholly new to Hollywood, Something’s Gotta Give (2003), visited similar territory and it helps if the leads are charismatic stars. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the film delivers emotional resonances for those of us whose marriages didn’t survive, as well as plenty of laughs. The casting of Steve Martin – only given one brief funny scene – works as the ‘nice’ guy but the movie belongs to Streep, still in terrific voice, and Baldwin, whose teenage vitality might not be realistic but he conveys the frustration of a man, who’s made bad choices, very well.

The children are fairly horrible, John Krasinski excepted, something the teens in the audience noticed, but that aside Nancy Meyer’s produced excellent entertainment; though it should have ended at the penultimate scene – but, hey, it’s Hollywood!

Ghost Town (US, 2008)

'Oh no, I can see dead people'

'Oh no, I can see dead people'

I’m not sure when the current cycle of romantic comedies, a staple of Hollywood, began (late ’80s with When Harry Met Sally, 1989?) but I wish it would end. However, if it has to continue let it be in the vein of Ghost Town. Ricky Gervais’ comic genius gives the usual slush an edge; he isn’t credited as a writer but many of the lines are obviously ‘him’.

This was the first film I’ve seen using Virgin’s (a cable company) ‘movie on demand’ service in high definition. Three times the picture and sound broke down into a distorted mess, presumably caused by buffering problems. At £5 a watch I expect better! The picture quality, when it worked, was terrific; though this is hardly a film that needs HD, the autumn colours of Manhattan were gorgeous.